What Would a Stoic Do? Response to Jean-Paul Sartre

In 1946 Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in which he presented an argument that neither Christian ethics nor Kantian deontology are very helpful with actual, real-life ethical dilemmas. He sketched one such dilemma for his audience, about a young man who has to decide whether to join the anti-Nazi resistance or stay at home with his frail mother, concluding that the answer to ethical questions always depends on the details of every particular case, and that therefore we need to go the Existentialist route and “trust in our instincts.” The question I wish to explore here is that of what a Stoic would do in the scenario imagined by Sartre.

Here is an excerpt from the essay to give you the full picture Sartre is presenting, as well as his reasoning for why Existentialism is the answer:

“As an example by which you may the better understand this state of abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine, who sought me out in the following circumstances. His father was quarrelling with his mother and was also inclined to be a “collaborator”; his elder brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940 and this young man, with a sentiment somewhat primitive but generous, burned to avenge him. His mother was living alone with him, deeply afflicted by the semi-treason of his father and by the death of her eldest son, and her one consolation was in this young man. But he, at this moment, had the choice between going to England to join the Free French Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her to live. He fully realised that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into despair. He also realised that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose. For instance, to set out for England he would have to wait indefinitely in a Spanish camp on the way through Spain; or, on arriving in England or in Algiers he might be put into an office to fill up forms. Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous – and it might be frustrated on the way. At the same time, he was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity. He had to choose between those two. What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbour, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother? Which is the more useful aim, the general one of fighting in and for the whole community, or the precise aim of helping one particular person to live? Who can give an answer to that a priori? No one. Nor is it given in any ethical scripture. The Kantian ethic says, Never regard another as a means, but always as an end. Very well; if I remain with my mother, I shall be regarding her as the end and not as a means: but by the same token I am in danger of treating as means those who are fighting on my behalf; and the converse is also true, that if I go to the aid of the combatants I shall be treating them as the end at the risk of treating my mother as a means. If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.”

Now, I actually think that Stoicism is a better model for Secular Humanists (as well as for many religious people, actually) than Existentialism, a topic I explore in this video, and that I have recently discussed with my friend Skye Cleary (who defended the Existentialist position, video to be published soon).

Before getting to Stoicism, though, let me complete Sartre’s analysis and add that yet a third major approach to ethics isn’t going to be very useful here either: utilitarianism. While it would seem obvious that from a utilitarian perspective the young man ought to leave his mother and help the greater cause, because of the high degree of uncertainty about what he will actually be able to do, and how effective he will be, it may turn out that overall happiness will be increased (and pain reduced) if he stays with his mother. There just is no way to tell. (Other utilitarian scenarios, in different situations, are much more clear, so this in itself isn’t a critique of the whole utilitarian approach.)

Back to Stoicism. To begin with, since Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics, it too does not provide universal answers, but needs to weigh the details of individual situations. While many consider this a weakness of virtue ethics when compared to “view from nowhere” systems such as Kantian deontology and Mill-style utilitarianism, I think it is a strength and agree with Sartre that ethics is often, if not nearly always, situational.

The second thing to notice is that Stoics recognize that we all play multiple ethical roles during our lives, in this specific case that of a dutiful son and of a concerned citizen. As Epictetus says:

“Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you are a council member, consider what a council member should do. If you are young, what does being young mean, if you are old, what does age imply, if you are a father, what does fatherhood entail? Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests the acts appropriate to it.” (Discourses II, 10.10)

But as Larry Becker also points out in his A New Stoicism, we need to arrive at decisions guiding our actions “all things considered,” i.e., taking into account that these different roles will often pull us into different directions, and that we need to chart the best possible course through many competing demands. What shall our guiding light be? Virtue, of course, the very point of a Stoic existence. As Seneca nicely puts it:

“The reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practised with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXXXI. On Benefits, 19)

Now, it seems to me that in the scenario posed by Sartre the greater virtue lies in defending liberty from tyranny, even at the cost of causing distress to one’s own mother. I cannot imagine a Cato, for instance, setting aside plans of taking on Julius Caesar on the ground that Cato’s mother will inevitably suffer as a result of the possibility of her son’s death. Or consider whether Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, could have possibly decided not to go on the Roman frontier to fight the Marcomanni on account of the very real anguish that his decision would cause to his family and friends.

(There is a caveat here, going back to Sartre’s story: it isn’t exactly clear what the young man’s motivation in joining the Resistance would be. If it is vengeance, as it is stated at one point, then that’s hardly a positive reason, and not likely one that a Stoic would defend; if, instead, he is moved by a sense of justice, then the Stoic account has given here holds true. Virtue ethics puts a premium on the character and intentions of the agent, more than on his specific actions.)

This example also shows, I think, where Stoicism most sharply differs from one of its main ancient rivals, Epicureanism. Epicurus very clearly advised his followers to stay away from social and political action and to focus instead on family and friendships, because doing the former will decrease their happiness and especially augment their pain.

Contrast, for instance, Marcus:

“Human beings exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” (Meditations, VIII.59)

With Epicurus (admittedly, though, cited by Epictetus, Discourses II.20.6):

“Don’t be deceived, men, or misled or mistaken: there is no natural fellowship of rational beings with each other.  Believe me: those who say otherwise are deceiving you and reasoning falsely.”

The important thing to realize is that a Stoic would join the Resistance not because of some sort of utilitarian calculus of costs and benefits — since there Sartre is right that any such calculus is next to impossible. Nor is the Kantian “ends not just means” imperative going to be useful here, for precisely the reasons Sartre outlines. The Stoic would, painfully, leave his mother and fight for a broader cause because it is the virtuous thing to do, regardless of outcome.

It is virtuous because it exercises the virtue of justice, which guides Epictetus’ discipline of action, and because the Stoics were cosmopolitan, caring for all of humankind.

It is to be done regardless of outcome because the outcome is not up to us, only our judgments and actions are, the crucial distinction at the root of Epictetus’ famous dichotomy of control.

But the Stoic decision wouldn’t be reached via Sartre’s rather nebulous (and likely unreliable) “instinct,” but rather by reason, the very thing that according to the Stoics distinguishes us from every other species on the planet:

“Bring the mind to bear upon your problems.” (Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi X.4)


23 thoughts on “What Would a Stoic Do? Response to Jean-Paul Sartre

  1. Mark Wallace

    The convenience of that particular example for your analysis is also its trouble: everyone agrees that Nazis are evil, so that war was more clear cut than many other conflicts, where the liberty v. tyranny element is not so clear cut and choosing virtue is complicated somewhat.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo Post author


    Not sure how the specific example (which I didn’t choose, it was Sartre’s) makes it particularly easy for me. Sartre himself didn’t think that was an easy decision to make. In cases were the tyranny vs liberty contrast is less clear one would need even more practical wisdom to tell the difference, but the basic idea stands.


  3. Paul Braterman

    If compassion cannot be derived from the Stoic virtues, that strikes me as a major weakness of Stoicism. If it can, then we have here a conflict between two different ways of manifesting virtue.


  4. Massimo Post author


    The Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis is their version of compassion. The Stoics were clear in saying that we should do our best to understand other people’s predicament and not be quick to judge.

    I’m not sure what conflict you refer to. There are four virtues in Stoicism, which are often considered four facets of the same underlying one, wisdom.


  5. Paul Braterman

    The conflict is the one facing the young man in the example. His concern for his mother is oikeiosis, the more so perhaps if we remember that oikos means home (yes, I know that such linguistic arguments are weak, but the are still suggestive). Yet he will be exercising other aspects of virtue if he goes off to fight. And he must chose which to practice. I cannot think of any argument that might help him.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo Post author


    I gave an argument in the post. Oikeiosis means home, but in the cosmopolitan sense, for the Stoics. The priority is clearly for social over family duty, as far as the Stoics are concerned. As I said, this is one of the things that distinguishes them from the Epicureans, for instance.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Brxi (@Brxi)

    I am either missing your point or I really cannot agree with you on this. Do you want to say that priority is for social over family duty, no matter what? Is your role as son always less important than role as citizen who can try to defend the country, even in the case that your ‘action might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose’? This would mean that in a situation of war everybody should just leave their families and take up arms, come what may – that certainly doesn’t sound right, for Stoics or anyone else. You should not compare with Cato or Marcus Aurelius here, who had a very important role as commanders and therefore a public duty that was probably more important (i.e. virtuous) then their family duty. But the guy in the Sartre story is just a young man…


  8. bayonico

    The caveat you expose is quite interesting. If the motivation leading to the young’s man will to join the resistance is vengeance, then the Stoic thing to do would be to exert the virtue of temperance and stay taking care of his mother? Can we then say that the Stoic way to take decisions is first to do an introspection about her motivations, and then decide according to the virtues and the dichotomy of control?


  9. Massimo Post author


    Sorry, I probably wasn’t clear. No, I did not mean to say that social duties always override duties to family and friends. Virtue ethics is situational, so the answer is always going to be “it depends.”

    But in the specific scenario brought up by Sartre, it seems to me that a mother’s distress is just not enough of a reason (say, as opposed to a clear and distinct danger to her life) for her son to forgo his duties to society.

    True, he doesn’t know how effective he will be, but that’s true in general, and that sort of consideration could become too easy an excuse not to get involved.

    As for Cato and Marcus, those are role models, and even though their specific situation doesn’t apply to most of us, the general principle, I think, does. Indeed, the common excuse for morally lazy people in Republican Rome was “I’m not a Cato,” meaning that not everyone has Cato’s moral rectitude. But is that a reason not to try?


    I don’t think a Stoic would look at his motivations first, but his motivations would enter into his decision. It’s sort of a combination between utilitarianism (where the motivations don’t count) and deontology (where their are first and foremost).


  10. viennahavana

    Massimo, I’m interested in the “social duties override duties to family and friends” — what if the war is an unjust war (ie. Vietnam)? In that case would the duty of a Stoic be to go underground and resist the war effort? Or what if, in reverse, the father had been a resistance fighter and the son wanted to support the State (in this case Nazi party) because he believed it was his social duty to “fight for a broader cause”? My point is this: what seems right (the virtuous, wise choice) might be unclear. It’s often not possible to know the real truth about why people fight wars: for land, money, trade routes, natural resources, etc. Wars are often morally complex situations, with less than clear political and social motives. In that case, if the son doubted what the just social action in supporting/resisting a war effort might be, couldn’t he be making the clearest virtuous choice by staying home to care for family?


  11. Massimo Post author


    As I stated before, I’m not arguing that social duties always override duties to friends and family. Virtue ethics is situational. In the case of fighting the Nazi vs the distress to the mother I think the social side outweighs the personal. As I mentioned in a previous comment, had the mother been in direct danger to her life, probably not.

    Right, the Vietnam War was not a just war (and pretty clearly so), and there are in fact precedents of Stoics taking up arms against their country (Cato).

    The Stoic doesn’t have ready made solutions to these issues, and a good thing it is. As Becker says, decisions need to be made “all things considered,” and the guide to those decisions is our prudence, or practical wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Brxi (@Brxi)


    OK, I see now what you wanted to say.

    It is just that I thought that the point of what Sartre was saying in that excerpt was that there will always be some situations where two or more of our roles ask for different actions to be made and neither clearly outweighs the other (e.g. what if the boy knew the mother would most probably die if he left). Considering the uncertainty of the outcomes of our actions, in these situations “nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.” Surely a Stoic will face these hard choices too. But a Stoic will probably have a better way of accepting the consequences of her choice, whether it turns up to be good or bad.


  13. Massimo Post author


    I think there is more than that to it. Sartre basically says we should go with our gut feelings. Stoicism isn’t about gut feelings, of course, but about reason, exercising our “ruling faculty.” And it does provide a framework for establishing priorities. So it offers tools to the thinking person for reasoning her way through this sort of difficult situations to arrive at the best decision, all things considered.


  14. nonscholaesedvitaedoscimus

    Hello Massimo,

    Along the same lines as Paul, I don’t think the choice of the social over the family one is as obvious as you make it seem. For one, it seems like a false dichotomy. My understanding Oikeoisis is that is it the collapsing of distinctions between you and successively larger concentric circle of social relations (family, neighbors, fellow citizens, etc). So if this rough definition is correct, family members are on equal standing with anyone else in terms of my necessity to do justice. and further, i don’t see justice as a utilitarian virtue in the sense that the more people I could do justice to, the better. In this sense, the young man could choose to do justice by his mother (who is obviously psychologically unstable and in need of family support, her son being the only member left) or by the country. It would be the right thing to do to take care of your mother that has taken care of you your whole life and lost everything, and it would also be right to fight against a cause you know to be wrong.


  15. Massimo Post author


    That’s a reasonable interpretation, but I don’t think it fits quite as well with overall Stoic philosophy.

    First, again, I never said that the social always overrides family duties.

    Second, right, oikeiosis means “contracting” the circles of concern, meaning that — ideally — the rest of humanity ought to be as important to you as your mother.

    This sounds like a utilitarian calculus, but if we are talking about the freedom and lives of many vs the distress of one, then the choice seems clear to me, on virtue ethical grounds.

    A common misconception is that virtue ethics is not about consequences. Of course it is, but not in the simplistic fashion a utilitarian would use.

    More broadly, again, the young man has to make a decision between competing demands, all things considered. In this specific case (but not necessarily others) we have the Nazi threat on one side and his mother’s distress on the other. I think a rational decision would weigh the former more than the latter.


  16. David White

    I read a critique of Socrates (perhaps here somewhere) which criticised him for not taking the escape route he was offered although his family dearly wanted him to do so. According to the critique, he put his pride before his family. Also the familiar Stoics don’t have a great history of family involvement or the judgement of other people in general – Seneca and Nero; Marcus and his son etc. Even Musonius and his insistence on ‘manly beards’ etc discords with me (I have a stubbly beard!)
    Responsibility, particularly for those whose existence I am responsible for, comes higher up the indifference scale (I hate ‘indifference’) than an idealistic notion – at any rate for me. Stoicism is about ‘setting ones own house in order’ first.
    So, whilst I do not disagree with your analysis, it is a situation which I find challenging.


  17. Massimo Post author


    You are right, it is a challenging problem.

    But I find that critique of Socrates entirely missing the point, which is well spelled out by Plato. Socrates explicitly explains that he has to abide by the laws, even if that particular instance of their application is unjust, because he has benefited from them his entire life.

    Indeed, it is precisely thinking of that example that I wager the Stoics would tend to give precedence to social duties over family ones. Not exclusively, and always depending on circumstances, of course.

    Indeed, as I said in the OP, this is one of the things that separates us from the Epicureans, who would have no doubt whatsoever about staying with the mother.

    I don’t think it is fair of accusing Seneca of bad judgment concerning Nero. He arguably tried to manage an impossible situation. I have an essay concerning this coming out tomorrow.

    As for Marcus, there too the story is more complicated, as argued by Don Robertson in a recent discussion thread at the Facebook Stoic group.

    I’m with you on Musonius and beards, though!


  18. Shane Sullivan

    I see there’s already a lively discussion going on here, but I’d like to add a little more food for thought: There was plenty of very important resistance work to be done in France during World War II, so it may not have been as simple and binary as “stay home and do nothing” or “move to North Africa to be an ineffectual desk jockey”. On the other hand, I would consider leaving home a much more viable option if there was someone nearby who I knew and trusted to at least keep an eye on my mother.

    Some of this would have depended on circumstance, such as where he lived in France, whether he knew the right people, and when specifically this story took place (all we know for sure is that it took place after the German offensive of 1940), but since all we have to go by is a single and rather unwieldy paragraph, I’m going to go ahead and quote Isaac Asimov: Insufficient Data for Meaningful Answer.


  19. Walter Braun

    Oh my, this time you got it all wrong, Massimo.

    No Confucian or Taoists would ever think or argue this way. It is natural to protect one’s family, while it is rather unnatural to think in abstract terms like ‘nation’. Your stance is as abstract as the extremes of Christendom or Kant or these irrational neo-utilitarians (who seem to hate human nature). Perhaps your left-leaning attitude misled you here. Conservatives would be much more sensible by preferring the near to the far, the known to the unknown, the calculable to the incalculable.

    The strength of virtue ethics is that it deals with concrete situations, not abstracts – you do not owe allegiance to a ‘battle field’.
    The examples you bring are meagre and misleading: What Cato’s or Aurelius’ duties might be have nothing whatsoever to do with the duties of a common man to his mother.

    The strength of a real Stoic is that they are concrete in their actions and attitude, not otherworldly. Your conclusion – “The Stoic would, painfully, leave his mother and fight for a broader cause because it is the virtuous thing to do, regardless of outcome” – completely hangs in the air because it would only be true under very specific circumstances (e.g. it is a soldier’s duty to fight, not a civilian’s!).

    It is most definitely the virtuous thing to support the next of kin instead of nebulous actions (or hot-headed and pointless suicide missions of amateurs). As both Confucius and the Stoics maintained: Social obligations grow in concentric circles, and the starting point is always the natural love one has for the own family; an airy-fairly ‘love’ for the whole humankind comes last (at least in sane minds)…

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Massimo Post author


    Well, obviously, I disagree. What a Confucian or Taoist would do is, of course, entirely irrelevant. This is about Stoicism.

    The Stoics most definitely incorporated a lot of “abstract” concepts into their philosophy, for instance the idea of cosmopolitanism itself.

    My “left leaning attitude” would arguably be at odds with my conclusion here, since leftists tend to be skeptical of wars. And it is entirely not the case that conservatives would take the “much more sensible” position to stay at home, since many of the conservatives I know (like the last three conservative administrations in the US) are war mongering.

    You simply declare that my examples of Cato and Marcus are irrelevant, but it isn’t clear why. Marcus very explicitly says that our duty is to improve the human condition, not just our family’s.

    And of course you entirely ignore my argument that the young man would base his decision on the virtue of justice.

    The Stoics did not think of social obligations as growing circles, but as contracting ones. The difference is relevant: in the metaphor of growing circles family is first, humanity is last. But if you are attempting to contract the circles you are trying to remind yourself that strangers are just as worthy of attention and protection as your family is.


  21. pascojc

    just to note that sartre never hashed out his ethics well – that took simone de beauvoir in ‘ethics of ambiguity’. maximizing freedom for each and every consciousness becomes the north star for choosing one’s projects. she does not say this is easy, as the title suggests.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.